A conversation between Simon Critchley and Manuela Kölke on April 26, 2015.
M: As lots of people give their testimony on the internet today, let’s join the mess: In Christian terms ‘to testify’ means to give a story of how one became Christian. Since I didn’t grow up in their company, please allow me to re-cycle this idea: What have you become through, with, besides The European Graduate School (EGS) that would enable you to actually give your testimony on? What do you believe EGS has done which deems particularly worth of sharing?
S: That a very good question. Ok, I would say, that I was a sceptic about EGS, when it was described to me by students, from looking at the website, there is all these famous people on the hill and on the mountains, they can’t be serious, it must be some ponzy scheme, some bizarre offshore money making venture. Then when I went in 2010, Wolfgang got in touch with me, and I met Wolfgang in New York and I liked Wolfgang immediately. He asked me to do it, and the problem was that Zizek couldn’t come that year. So I was gonna replace him and that pleased me in a kind of soothing way, being the Zizek substitute, because we don’t exactly get along. And I arrived and I didn’t have any expectations. That was the end of August. That was interesting, it was fantastic. The three days of very intensive teaching and I began to understand how it works, and I was literally there the last three days of the August session, it was a bit manic, people were tied (tired?) emotionally. And then Wolfgang asked me to come back. He asked me to come in the beginning of June, so to begin with the first year, the first group. And I’ve done that for four years. And I like that very much, I like it there when Saas-Fee is dead, and the June session is less student, I get to work with 12-14 students. It’s not more than that. It’s strangely intimate; I mean what happens in those few days. I get to know the EGS-students in three days, I’m probably there five days, I get to know them better than the New School students for a whole semester. It’s true, you’re with them all the time. And then you go to Metro Bar afterwards, and you hang out. It’s very intense. And there are some students, who are graduate students like the New School graduate students, but they are not the majority, there are people who are artists, architects, accountants, or film makers. They are very cool, all people who have gotten their developed professional career. So I was a sceptic, I’m not a sceptic anymore.
That’s my testimony of how I became a EGS person. I think it’s the right model of education what Wolfgang has done, whether intentionally or not, is to create a space that work with the ways how people live their lives. So for example in New York as a graduate student you can be student when people have to work in bars or various jobs and it’s very hard to sustain the tension over a very long period of time. Whereas in EGS that three-week-window offers a kind of intensive immersion and that allows people to concentrate for a long period. And it’s not a university it’s not in any way a university, it’s a free space, for me as a teacher I feels like a free space, I like that.
M: How do you then perceive this contrast between the richness, intensity, too much heaven-like, ‘sorrowless’ environment, and the idea, in fact Nietzsche’s, if I’d freely translate from German, that disaster comes from, “critics who do not suffer privation or misery (or who are not bothered by anything)”? How does critique then hold in (such a beautiful) paradise as opposed to the tombs of the university, you’ve described before?
S: I’m not sure. I’m not really teaching critique.
M: Your last seminar was on tragedy, conflict, friction, disaster, war, fights, which define events in history. Where does that appear in EGS? And if tragedy, as you were claiming, is superior to philosophy, why don’t we just let life rub us the way it has been and learn from everyday moments? Why would someone need to be in ‘paradise’ or come back to it?
S: Maybe it’s before and after. Maybe the institution is a critique.
M: Of what?
S: It’s a critique of what universities have become and what our lives have become and in particularly in urban environments have become. So in many ways I see EGS almost like a kind of monastic community with a set of strange rules with Wolfgang as the abbot and then these priests who come in and offer instruction. It’s a kind of withdrawal from the world which allows you to see things more clearly, more critically. I think the people who are there; they are looking for a space, a break in order for something else to happen. What does critique mean? Critique is a decision, an “Urteil”, a separation. So to decide to go to EGS for a couple of years is also a critique, you’re making a decision to a certain thing and that may lead you to view the world in a very different way. It certainly has that effect on students it seems.
M: If EGS offers this element of distance, gaining another perspective, experiencing a break from everyday life in this otherworldly environment, full of flowers, bursting glacier streams, land-of-plenty-like always coffee and food at hand, what is it that one can transfer and take back from ‘paradise’?
S: I think that people need a break. I’ve done something similar in Italy for a few weeks when I was a student. It enables something to happen. There is a huge virtue to this withdrawal, this secession from the world. The effects of it can be enduring and also not immediate. It’s not that you come down from the mountain and you are transformed. These things stay in your mind in an important way.
M: It’s placing a seed?
S: It’s placing a seed. And there’s also a question; two things: Firstly you got a secession and withdrawal as an option. And whether withdrawal is uncritical. And I don’t know about that. There’s a lot of secession happening around the world with groups like the invisible committee deciding to withdraw from the city, in order to take a critical stance. I was talking to friend of mine, who is a Swedish pop-star from the 1980, Alexander Bard. He is a kind of genius and he has been working with Burning Man for years and year. And he is now trying to develop permanent off-world communities. Maybe that could be like a permanent EGS community.
M: Would that still work, if you’re not having the experience of coming down from the mountain?
S: I don’t know. Maybe not. We need an ‘Untergang’ as well, right? You’re full of Nietzsche, I can see that. Also, it is very Nietzschean, in the sense in which 6000ft or 2000m above sea level, when he is in Sils-Maria, when he’s talking about how the thought of eternal return hits him. It hits him at altitude. So another really important thing about EGS is altitude, environment, and this strange hotel, these wooden huts, where you teach. But also when you’re at altitude, your pattern of respiration, how your body reacts, changes, you get drunk really quickly. I think, it changes the way you think a little bit, I do.
M: So it’s not a myth.
S: No. I do sea-level thinking. I’m someone who’s always lived at sea level and I am very attached to that. My family is from a port, I live in a port, I’m very attached to the sea. For those few days you get to the mountains and my head, I can feel a kind of change. That means you can get a headache, you can dehydrate, you have to look after yourself over there. It changes.
M: Could you imagine EGS in any other place?
S: No. I couldn’t. For me it’s Saas-Fee. This idea having it at Malt, at sea-level – I don’t know, maybe, maybe it can work. I couldn’t imagine it. So I imagine it, I fly to Zürich, I get the train to Visp, I get the bus from Visp to Saas-Fee, I know the route from Saas-Fee bus terminal to the hotel Allalin. I’ve got my little routine and then I’m in that world. I even know what room I’m gonna be in. So it couldn’t imagine it elsewhere, I can only imagine it in that place. But it could happen elsewhere.
M: What has challenged you the most, circumstance, students, discussions, cooperation?
S: I’ve been challenged late at night in Metro Bar by obsessional boy Marxists. I find that really boring. They will know about abstract labor or class struggle. It’s late: can’t we talk about football or clothes? So what I like about going to the bar afterwards is, I cannot talk about philosophy. I can try getting to know these people. So being criticized by American obsessional boyish Marxists: I don’t like that. There have been times at EGS that have been really nice. Like something unexpected at lunch, all of the sudden someone will tell a joke and then you’re laughing or something absurd. You find another way of being with each other.
M: So should students believe in EGS?
S: Yeah, why not. In my view, that might not be politically appropriate, given what’s happening of EGS, but I think EGS is the creation the benevolent despotism of Wolfgang Schirmacher. And Wolfgang, to say the very least, is a unique individual. And he’s made this thing happen. And I like the idea of it being temporary. I don’t see why institutions should last forever. I know this probably not what they want to hear, but I like the idea that EGS existed, it took place and it had an effect on people and perhaps at a moment it stopped.
M: How is the community up there forming? How does it keep going? What makes EGS a community?
S: There is a kind of continuity, it’s there. I see students here and there. But what the students experience, I don’t really know. The EGS only exists because of the will of Wolfgang and his blend of anarchy and authority. It’s peculiar, but he can make it happen. What’s good about it is that he gives teachers complete freedom. You’re completely free to do what you like. That’s great.
M: So how do you escape from paradise, when in paradise?
S: Sleep, alcohol and sleep, sleeping pills. That usually does the trick and then I am away. It’s really important to sleep up there. You get really strung out. I love it to look up on the mountain, when I wake up. “How do you escape from paradise, when you’re in paradise?” I generally go to the bar. That’s my response.
M: Since you’re not a nature person, I cannot imagine you going to the mountain top or glacier streams. You’re rather going to the bar stream?
S: I had a look at the mountains. I went up. It’s really nice. I just don’t know what to do there.
M: You probably haven’t gotten further than the hotel.
S: I tend to stay in the hotel and walk around. Maybe once I went for a walk into “town”. I’m not much of a hiker. You can take me on a walk.
M: Feel free to take your bottle with you.
This conversation was published in POIESIS as a special issue of the journal devoted to the celebration of the 20th anniversary of The European Graduate School in June 2015.